As China moves ahead with the trials of two detained Canadians, experts say the government should have taken a stronger stance against the Chinese government – and that early efforts to allow common sense to prevail have since been proven fruitless.
Their comments come as Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau confirmed on Wednesday that the Canadian Embassy in Beijing has been notified of the court dates for the two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
“At the outset, there was this feeling that by following what I call an appeasement strategy, that common sense would prevail and that eventually, our two Canadians would be free,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.
“We should have reacted more strongly because, you know, when you look at what has been accomplished so far. Well…we have had zero result.”
The pair known as the Two Michaels have been detained in China since 2018, when they were thrown in Chinese jail in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
In the years since, China has made it clear that the cases are linked in their eyes. As a result, they’ve been applying pressure on Canada to release the executive.
Canada has taken some steps to push back on China. Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, have repeatedly and vocally expressed their opposition to the politically-motivated detentions.
The Canadian government has also pushed allies to raise Spavor and Kovrig’s plights in their dealings with China. The conversations have led to public displays of support, including comments that U.S. President Joe Biden made following a meeting with Trudeau in late February.
“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said at the time.
“We’re going to work together until we get their safe return. Canada and the United States will stand together against abuse of universal rights and democratic freedom.”
Canada also spearheaded the global signing of a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes, a move that infuriated China as 58 countries added their names in support.
However, much of this visible pushback on China has been a recent move – and Charles Burton, a senior fellow and China expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says strength was needed from the moment the two Canadians were detained.
“The Canadian government has consistently said that quiet diplomacy, negotiations in secret would be the way to achieve Kovrig and Spavor’s release. But after 860-some days of incarceration, clearly that policy has not succeeded,” Burton told Global News in an interview.
Burton explained that China believed if they applied enough pressure to Canada, the government would acquiesce and influence our judiciary to release Meng. However, that’s not possible in Canada, where politics are not designed to hold sway over the justice system.
“I don’t think that we did enough to make it clear to the Chinese government that scenario was not going to pan out, nor did we retaliate in any objective way by, say, imposing sanctions on the Chinese officials implicated in the detainment and brutal treatment of Kovrig and Spavor,” Burton said.
Saint-Jacques echoed the idea that some form of firm action should have been applied against the Chinese, whether it be preventing Chinese delegations from coming to Canada or refusing to allow Chinese athletes to train for the Winter Olympics in Canada.
“All this to show to China that we would – we could – retaliate, even if they consider us as insignificant,” Saint-Jacques said.
And now, a frustrating trial process lies ahead for Spavor and Kovrig. Canadian officials have not yet been granted permission to attend the trial, which is already closed to both the media and the public, and will be conducted in a judicial system that boasts a 99.99 per cent conviction rate.
It’s a familiar story for Peter Humphrey, a former Reuters journalist who was himself imprisoned in China while working as a fraud investigator there in 2013.
While he won the right to have an open trial, it wasn’t truly open when his court date came to pass.
“The media were kept in another room somewhere else in the building, watching screens with a very delayed and censored feed from the courtroom,” Humphrey told Global News.
“They didn’t allow any defense evidence to be presented. So we were completely crippled in that trial.”
He explained that this is the kind of unfair trial that Spavor and Kovrig can expect to face during their court dates in the coming days.
“You’re not going to see a real trial here. What you’re going to see is a deliberate act of humiliation,” Humphrey said.
“These two men have, actually, no real means of defending themselves.”
Meanwhile, the heat is on for Canada to take action to free the two Canadians as they face a looming decision on the espionage charges, a crime that is punishable in China by life in prison and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years.
Burton noted, however, that the negotiations to try to free Spavor and Kovrig may not really be in Canada’s hands anymore.
“The Canadian government’s essentially passive response to the hostage diplomacy has more or less dealt us out of the negotiations with China,” he said.
“We have nothing on the table with regard to Kovrig and Spavor. So it does seem to me that Canada is more or less standing idly by while the United States and China try and sort this matter out.”
However, both Burton and Saint-Jacques acknowledged that recent actions show that Canada is beginning to chart a more firm path when it comes to its dealings with China.
Between the recent recognition in the House of Commons that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes genocide and the Canada-led declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention, China has been repeatedly angered by Canada of late – indicating the government may be starting to feel more comfortable stepping on China’s toes.
When asked if he feels Canada is getting a bit stronger on China, Saint-Jacques said he thinks “it’s moving in that direction.”
However, both Burton and Saint-Jacques agreed that more change is needed.
“I feel that the way the Canadian government has handled (the detentions) has not produced the desired result and that we should really do a very strong reassessment of how we approach this regime in light of how things have been developing,” Burton said.
Saint-Jacques pointed out that it can be difficult for a country of Canada’s size to stand up to a global superpower like China. However, the perfect opportunity for Canada to link up with like-minded countries on the issue is looming: Biden’s Summit of Democracy in April.
“I think that now, everyone understands that China is a strategic competitor and we have to agree on common measures to oppose China and to protect and defend our interests and values,” Saint-Jacques said.
“Otherwise, it’s China that will dictate the terms of the relationship in the future.”